1. A recreation showing what the sunken port-city of Thonis-Heracleion may have looked like.

Herodotus was right!

It is the largest graveyard of ancient ships found in the world. Containing over 70 vessels, the sunken port city of Thonis-Heracleion, which lies off the northern coast of Egypt 30km east of Alexandria, has yielded extraordinary finds. The discovery of Thonis-Heracleion and its nearby sister city Canopus in 2000 and their exploration is the work of the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM) directed by its founder, renowned marine archaeologist, Franck Goddio.

To date, the remains of a temple, statues, golden coins and the many ships of this busy, ancient city have been located. Yet the recent discovery of a Nile barge (baris) by Goddio's team is especially exciting. This kind of vessel was described in his Histories by the Ancient Greek historian Herodotus, after he visited Egypt in 450 BC, but this is the only one that has been found and identified.

Named Ship 17, it was excavated over three seasons by the IEASM between 2009 and 2011. A little over 24 metres of the keel survives, so it would have been about 27m–28m long with a beam of around 8m. It was a large transport barge and would have spent its active life ferrying cargo up and down the Nile and around its Delta.
'The cargo could have been products of Egypt, such as barley or stone, or imports into the port of Thonis-Heracleion. There's also a papyrus that talks about this type of ship transporting soldiers,' explains
Dr Damian Robinson, Director of the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology (OCMA), which works in partnership with Franck Goddio and the IEASM on research and on the publication of his work on the submerged Canopic cities.

According to Dr Robinson, the vessel was probably built in a shipyard in the Delta. After its active life, it was taken out of service and reused as a piece of harbour infrastructure; a floating pontoon to extend a jetty out into deeper water. The timbers of the ship have been radiocarbon dated, as have the ceramics that were in the hull, as Robinson reports: 'Together, they suggest that the vessel was old when it was hulked and reused as a jetty some time in the 6th century BC. It finally sank during the first half of the 5th century BC'. 


2. A marine archaeologist inspects the keel of a shipwreck discovered in the waters around the sunken port city of Thonis-Heracleion.

The discovery of the vessel prompted amazement among the archaeological team, as he recounts: 'The site of Thonis-Heracleion and the other cities of the Canopic coast have produced some wonderful and spectacular finds, and Ship 17 is certainly one of them. 'Its significance obviously grew as the team got to know more about it and more information came to light about just how exceptional it was. It's not every day that you find something completely new in your discipline. The evidence available for the baris up to this point was overwhelmingly textual, although it has been suggested that a baris is depicted on the Nile mosaic from Palestrina in Italy'.

So, Ship 17 is the first archaeologically excavated and fully published baris, and its significance is two-fold, as Robinson explains: 'First, it details a style of ship construction that is unique to Thonis-Heracleion and has never been seen before archaeologically. Consequently, this study has documented this form of construction in detail, and so it is important from a nautical architectural perspective. 'Second, this style of shipbuilding so closely matches the description of the construction of a baris that it helps us to think a little more about Herodotus.

We can now say that it is highly likely that the description was based on an eye-witness account, so Herodotus
probably did visit a shipyard and saw one being made. 'Often the accuracy of Herodotus' accounts are called into question – some of them certainly are far from the truth – but here the accuracy of the description makes it clear that this isn't something that he made up or half understood from something that someone else told him.'

More work will soon to be carried out in Thonis-Heracleion and Canopis, says Robinson: 'The team are going back to Egypt this year. The wonderful thing about working on the submerged Canopic cities is that the more we know about the sites, the more complex further questions we can ask about them. Consequently, there are always new things to learn about the cities, their people and their relationships with the world around them. We are also extremely fortunate to be funded by the Hilti Foundation who have allowed Franck and his team to conduct a long-term and extremely detailed research programme.'

Although the team have discovered over 70 ancient ships during the survey work, detailed excavations have only taken place on two of them; one of which is Ship 17, and this is the first one that has been published in detail.
'We now know that there are many other examples of baris in Thonis-Heracleion, and so one of the subsequent things that the team has been able to do is select and start to excavate another. This example is a little smaller but has elements within its nautical architecture that are better preserved than on Ship 17.

'What this is enabling us to do is to come to an even better understanding of how these vessels were constructed, as the new excavations are helping us to fill in the gaps in our knowledge...'

• https://news.artnet.com/art-world/ancient-shipwreck-herodotus-1497052
• Ship 17 a baris from Thonis-Heracleion by Alexander Belov, OCMA monograph series Oxford 2019, distributed by Oxbow Books, hardback, £45. (Belov is a Research Fellow of the Centre for Egyptological Studies in the Russian Academy of Sciences. He has been part of Franck Goddio's excavation team since the first season of excavation in Thonis-Heracleion in 1999.)
Diana Bentley

 
 
<back